“The empathy machine”: hype, hope and immersion in non-fiction VR

Mandy Rose

“The empathy machine”: hype, hope and immersion in non-fiction VR

This paper considers the wave of experimentation with Virtual Reality as a non-fiction platform that has been kick-started by the development of the Oculus Rift and its competitor products – Google Cardboard, Samsung Galaxy Gear, Microsoft’s Morpheus etc.

The title evokes a panel on Virtual Reality that took place at SIGGRAPH in 1990 – Hip, Hype, Hope; The Three Faces of Virtual Worlds – and intends to underline the mix of techno-utopianism and commercial interest that has attended VR in the nearly forty years since Ivan Sutherland first proposed a, “3D, head-mounted display”.

In the period between its invention and its imminent arrival in the mass market, research on VR has continued in medical, military and educational settings, and it was a university lab that provided the context for Nonny de la Pena’s first experiments in “immersive journalism” which have proved a powerful influence on the emerging field of non-fiction VR. Through reference to a number of works released in 2014 and 2015 – Assent, The Enemy, Clouds over Sidra, Herders – the paper will ask what is at stake for documentary as it is being re-invented for VR and 360 video. Central to the discussion is the concept of “presence” – the sense of immersion within the events depicted by VR which can be situated within the cinematic “tradition of optical illusions that exploit a peculiar ability of the human eye to deceive the mind” (Mulvey).

Thom Gunning’s framework of a “Cinema of Attractions” offers a salient reference point for VR within early cinema, and his idea of the documentary as, “putting the world within one’s reach” provides an entry point to ask how VR documentaries advance the documentary project – if that project is conceived of as one which seeks to engage thought as well as a visceral sense of proximity. Within Gunning’s framework, “Every change in film history implies a change in its address to the spectator, and each period constructs its spectator in a new way.” It is the construction of the spectator as agent within the experience of 360 video and VR which is its unique offer and, this paper will argue, its distinctive challenge.

It is the affective dimension of this spectator position – the rhetoric of VR as an “empathy machine” which is this paper’s central concern. By keeping in mind the triad of documentary maker, spectator and subject in VR production, this paper will reframe Michael Renov’s 2007 question, asking, “ What kind of responsibility do you bear for that other [of VR]?”

Amidst daily announcements of new VR documentary initiatives, and at times giddy claims about the potential impact of the medium, this paper will set out to identify some of the issues at stake for documentary as it intersects with the affordances of Virtual Reality. Proposing questions around form, language and ethics; I wish to engage a dialogue with practitioners inventing this new medium and contribute to an agenda for research into the application of VR for non-fiction.